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Writing Guidelines

Right Block

About

This section of the UH Libraries web content style guide defines voice, tone, active voice, plain language, and other values used in official UH Libraries web writing.

Contact

Daniel Pshock
UX & Web Content Strategy Coordinator
djpshock@uh.edu

Voice and tone

Voice expresses the unique personality of the Libraries. Voice is used to distinguish the Libraries from others.

The Libraries' voice is, above all, helpful, straightforward, and earnest.

Its voice could also be described as

  • Professional but not stuffy
  • Authoritative but not imposing
  • Supportive but not condescending
  • Personable but not juvenile

Tone conveys feeling or mood of a particular piece of content. It is dependent on audience and context. For example, the tone of a billing notice for an overdue book will be different than the tone for an upcoming library event.

Ensure appropriate tone by considering the reader of the content, along with where they are and why they are reading it. Apply a user-centered approach to content writing.

It is sometimes helpful to step into a user's shoes and consider different emotions or perspectives. Use of empathy is encouraged when appropriate.

 

Use active voice

In active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action.

Passive ✗ Book are lent by the library
Active ✓ The library lends books

Active voice is easier to understand and flows more naturally than passive voice.

Passive ✗ Materials checked out may be borrowed for 6 weeks by students
Active ✓ Students may borrow checked out materials for 6 weeks

 

Be concise

People do not read on the web. Be aware of this when writing content. Users are likely scanning for important phrases.

Along with conciseness, write content that is easily scannable. Adding lists (rather than paragraphs), writing useful headers, or hyperlinking actionable text makes it easier to find needed information.

 

Use plain language

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to use clear communication for the public to use.

Plain language is "communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it." Plain language comprises many different techniques. It is defined by its results - it is easy to read, understand, and use.

Tips for writing plain language include using

  • Active voice with strong verbs
  • Short sentences
  • Personal pronouns (e.g., you)
  • Familiar words
  • No library jargon
  • Organizing pages with meaningful headers

When writing content, use plain language. Many of the rules established in this style guide contribute to plainly written web content, such as being concise, using headers, etc.

 

Write positively

Negative writing creates a poor environment for users by scolding them or turning them away instead of encouraging library use. Content is more successful when it is positive and good news is emphasized over bad news.

Methods for writing positively include

  • Avoiding overuse of phrases of denial, e.g., do not, only, prohibited, unable
  • Emphasizing positive information by placing it in the beginning of content. Place negative information after positive information
  • Focusing on what users can do over what they cannot
  • Avoiding over-emphasizing important text, especially using all caps
Negative ✗ DO NOT return media to the book drop!!
Positive ✓ Return media directly to the service desk.

 

Negative ✗ Students are only allowed to borrow 99 items at one time.
Positive ✓ Students may borrow up to 99 items.

Specific guidelines for emphasizing text are provided.

 

First, second, and third person

In normal writing, first and second person (e.g., we, us, you) is used sparingly. Third person (e.g. the Libraries, students) maintains a professional voice for the Libraries.

However, first and second can be used for conciseness and clarity when third person gets too wordy.

Wordy third person ✗ More concise ✓
It is the responsibility of students, faculty, and staff to provide the Libraries with his or her updated contact information. It is your responsibility to provide us with updated contact information.

 

Titles and headers

A title defines a page or a piece of content as a whole. It is usually found at the top of a piece of content, or referenced in a menu or table of contents.

Titles allow users to understand content before reading it. Effective page titles

  • Define the page in as few words as possible
  • Contain enough words as to not be vague
  • Contain keywords that optimize findability, especially in search engines

The first word and important words in titles are capitalized while non-important words are lowercase.

Incorrect ✗ Suggest a purchase
Incorrect ✗ Suggest A Purchase
Correct ✓ Suggest a Purchase

A header defines a section found within content. There may be multiple headers of varying sizes.

Headers break up content and make pages scannable. Headers make a page with lots of content that covers multiple subjects more usable.

Similar to titles, headers are effective when they define a section concisely, are written clearly, and contain keywords.

Only the first word in a header is capitalized, with the exception of proper nouns.

Incorrect ✗ Courses Available in July
Correct ✓ Courses available in July

 

Linked text is noticeable, helps organize the web page content, and provides important calls to action. Links must stand on their own with obvious destinations and functions.

Write action verbs and/or keywords near the front of links.

Poor link ✗ Search the catalog to locate books and more.
Better link ✓ Search the catalog to locate books and more.

Never use "click here."

Poor link ✗ For more information about borrowing, click here.
Better link ✓ Learn more about borrowing policies.

Forcing links to open in a new tab creates confusion for some users, i.e., avoid it.

If a link must open in a new window or tab, inform the user, either through explicitly stating so, e.g., "This link will open in a new tab", or with an external link icon.

 

Adding emphasis to text

Emphasis is added to text sparingly. Too much emphasis on content encourages users to skip over it. A well-written page rarely needs additional emphasis.

When necessary, use bold to emphasize text.

Examples of appropriate times to emphasize text include

  • Specific phrases users scan for
    • There is a $3/day fine for overdue laptops that are not returned.
  • Parts of phrases that are critical
    • If you do not log into the room within 5 minutes, the space will be released to the next user in line.
  • New words that are explicitly defined for unfamiliar users
    • The catalog includes books, media items, electronic books, and more.

Do not use underlines or italics for emphasis in normal text. These make letters seem to run together, creating accessibility issues.

Shouting at users is not necessary. Do not use emphasis to berate users, especially with ALL CAPS.

When emphasizing text that is already bold (like titles or headers), use underline.

 

Capitalization

For titles, the first word and every important word is capitalized. Non-important words (a, is, the, of, etc.) are lowercase.

Incorrect ✗ Suggest a purchase
Incorrect ✗ Suggest A Purchase
Correct ✓ Suggest a Purchase

For headers, only the first word is capitalized, with the exception of proper nouns.

Incorrect ✗ Courses Available in July
Correct ✓ Courses available in July

All caps is not used for emphasis.

 

Writing about the Libraries

The official name of the organization is the University of Houston Libraries.

"Libraries" is always plural and written as a single entity.

Incorrect ✗ The Libraries are committed to student success.
Correct ✓ The Libraries is committed to student success.

Always use the definite article "the" before "University of Houston Libraries" and "Libraries"

Do not use a definite article before "UH Libraries."

Incorrect ✗ The UH Libraries is committed to student success.
Correct ✓ UH Libraries is committed to student success.

Official titles of individual branches and other libraries/archives:

MD Anderson Memorial Library

  • "Memorial" is often dropped
  • Also the main library or just the library
  • Never use "the MD Anderson Library"

William R. Jenkins Architecture & Art Library

  • When not using the official name use the Architecture & Art Library

Music Library

  • Never use "music library" as the Music Library is the official name for this branch

Weston A. Petty Library

  • When not using the official name use the Optometry Library
  • This official name should still be used after the branch changes to its temporary location in Spring 2017

John M. O'Quinn Law Library (at UH Law Center)

  • When not using the official name use the Law Library
  • Because this branch is not administratively part of UH Libraries, adding "at UH Law Center" after the name is appropriate

Hospitality Industry Archives (at Hilton College)

  • When not using the official name use the hospitality archives
  • Because this branch is not administratively part of UH Libraries, adding "at Hilton College" after the name is appropreiate

 

Describing locations

Locations in the library are described with the most important information first to make finding them easier.

Generally, follow this order in describing locations:

Room number (if available) then floor number then wing color

This order places specific, building-defined locations (room numbers and floor numbers) before abstract, arbitrary locations (wing colors).

Incorrect ✗ The meeting is in the Red Wing on the 3rd floor in room 304A.
Correct ✓ The meeting is in room 304A on the 3rd floor in the Red Wing.

 

Date and time

From the official UH Writing Style Guide:

"When only the month and year are used, do not separate the month and year with a comma."

"Always abbreviate a month when used with a specific date. Spell out when used without a date."

Incorrect ✗ Our records go back to Aug. 2000
Correct ✓ Our records go back to August 2000.

"When a month, date and year are used, set off the year with commas."

Correct ✓ Our records go back to Aug. 20, 2000, and are also available online.

Both a.m. and p.m. are lower case and with periods, as per UH style. Never use o’clock. Do not use a colon (:) and two zeros for a time on the hour.

Incorrect ✗ The class begins at 4:00 p.m.
Incorrect ✗ The class begins at 4 o'clock
Correct ✓ The class begins at 4 p.m.

 

Library system names

UH Libraries provides access to services, not systems. When writing public-facing content, the service name of a system is used.

Incorrect ✗ See the psychology LibGuide for additional resources.
Correct ✓ See the psychology research guide for additional resources.

A list of service names and system names is below.

System name (don't use) ✗ Service name (use) ✓
LibGuide Research guide
LibAnswers FAQ
ARCHON/ArchivesSpace Finding aid
Sierra Catalog
PRIMO OneSearch
ILLiad Interlibrary loan

For systems with no set service name, e.g., CougarNet, AccessUH, use the system name.

A system name may be referenced if the user must create an account within that system (as is the case with ILLiad).

 

Referencing technology or software

Technology or software is referenced by its official brand name, e.g. Microsoft Word, not MS Word. Consulting the brand guidelines of a given technology or software may be helpful.

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